Beyond experiments: conceptualising democratic innovations

I have had an abstract accepted to contribute to a COST action workshop in Brighton in April, on the topic ‘Beyond experiments: Understanding how climate governance innovations become embedded‘. The aim of the workshop is to develop an edited book, and I’m using my chapter to develop my thinking on ‘democratic innovations’, a concept around which I hope to focus my research in future. What particularly attracted me to the workshop was the emphasis on bringing together insights from science and technology studies and governance studies which is something I have been thinking about a lot. I explain how I am hoping to do this in the abstract below, and how I think a focus on democratic innovations, rather than just public participation processes for example, can lead to new insights about climate governance.


Understanding public dialogue as an embedded democratic innovation in UK climate governance

Public dialogue is a governance innovation which has played a significant role in UK science policy for more than a decade. Proposed by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in 2000 (HoL, 2000), and drawing inspiration from policy practices in Denmark and the Netherlands, the innovation was developed from 2004 onwards by the UK Government-funded Sciencewise programme. Through trials and experimentation around this new practice a more or less stable configuration of practices, material objects and meanings was developed and applied – defining public dialogue as extended deliberation, related to a specific policy decision, including both experts and members of the public.

Sciencewise’s public dialogues have since figured prominently in significant climate-related policy decisions, including the implementation of the 2008 UK Climate Change Act, behaviour change interventions to reduce energy demand in the home, the development of Government-supported community energy projects, flood preparedness, and fracking. Furthermore, public dialogue has been adopted as a ‘best practice’ governance innovation in other institutional contexts around and beyond the UK Government, including research councils, the NHS and market research companies.

Elements of this innovation have also been adopted in other national and transnational contexts, including European Union activities such as Engage2020, and in the Japanese Government’s approach to science communication. In the UK context, encounters with other emerging democratic innovations related to e-government and open policy, for example, are also leading to further innovations in the practice of public dialogue. Drawing on empirical work carried out by the author (see Pallett & Chilvers, 2013; Pallett, 2015a; 2015b) and the broader literature, this paper will offer a detailed account of the initial experimental introduction of public dialogue, its travel between different institutions, policy domains and national contexts, and its further development within a changing national policy context in the UK.

To conceptualise public dialogue as a governance innovation, I bring together concepts from governance studies with approaches and insights from science and technology studies (STS) and innovation studies. As well as drawing from literatures on policy learning (e.g. Owens, 2010), the most important element I use from governance studies is the concept of ‘democratic innovations’ (Smith, 2009), a term which is used to refer to deliberative methods of public engagement, like public dialogue. This paper will argue that there is scope to unpack this concept further in order to generate theoretical insights about the creation, travel, development, embedding and convergence of democratic and governance innovations (cf. Chilvers & Kearnes, 2015), by drawing on accounts of technological innovation from STS and innovation studies (e.g. Fagerberg, 2006; Stilgoe et al., 2013).

Furthermore, what STS studies of innovation have emphasised in particular is the need to not only describe innovation processes, but also to ask what their effects are and what else gets produced alongside them, from visions of the future, to framings of the issue under discussion, and even understandings of democracy itself. A small group of STS scholars has already begun to address this task of applying insights from the study of technical innovations to innovations in social practices, exploring the histories and potential future development of so-called ‘technologies of participation’ such as focus groups (Laurent, 2011; Lezaun & Soneryd, 2007; Voβ, 2015), and also considering the implications of their travel and embedding in new contexts (Soneryd, 2015).

What this paper will add to this earlier work and to the study of climate governance is the development of a conceptual framework for the study of democratic innovations around climate governance, which considers the mechanisms and effects not only of their development and travel across national boundaries, but also their travel between different institutional and policy contexts, as well as the transformations which occur in the encounter between different democratic or governance innovations.



Chilvers, J. & Kearnes, J. (2015). Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics. London: Routledge.

Fagerberg, J. (2006). Innovation: a guide to the literature. In J. Fagerberg, D. C. Mowery, & R. R. Nelson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

House of Lords. (2000). Science and Society: the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Third Report. London: HMSO.

Owens, S. (2010). Learning across levels of governance: Expert advice and the adoption of carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets in the UK. Global Environmental Change, 20(3), 394–401.

Pallett, H., & Chilvers, J. (2013). A decade of learning about publics, participation and climate change: institutionalising reflexivity? Environment and Planning A, 45(5), 1162–1183.

Pallett, H. (2015a). Public Participation Organizations and Open Policy: A Constitutional Moment for British Democracy? Science Communication, 37(6), 769–794.

Pallett H. (2015b). Organising science policy: participation, learning & experimentation in British democracy. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of East Anglia.

Smith, G. (2009). Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Soneryd, L. (2015). Technologies of participation and the making of technologised futures. In J. Chilvers & M. Kearnes (Eds.), Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics. 144-161. London: Routledge.

Stilgoe, J., Owen, R., & Macnaghten, P. (2013). Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy, 42(9), 1568-1580.

Voβ, J.-P. (2015). Reflexively engaging with technologies of participation: constructive assessment for public participation methods. In J. Chilvers & M. Kearnes (Eds.), Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics. 238-260. London: Routledge.


One thought on “Beyond experiments: conceptualising democratic innovations

  1. Pingback: Beyond experiments in climate governance workshop | Helen Pallett

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